Green was this ancient snake’s signature color

illustration of ancient snake

Researchers suspect that a roughly 10-million-year-old snake once had a pattern of bright green and black pigments on its back, with yellow and pale brown coloration on its sides, fading into a creamy underbelly.  

Jim Robbins

An ancient snakeskin preserves the bright green coloration of its wearer, researchers report March 31 in Current Biology.

In the early 20th century, miners discovered the fossilized remains of an 11.2-million- to 8.7-million-year-old snake in northeastern Spain. Modern researchers have managed to reconstruct the snake’s coloration, thanks to the presence of skeletons of the animal’s pigment cells in fossilized skin layers.

Comparing the cell shapes and architectures to that of modern snakes, the team identified structures linked to green, yellow, brown, black and creamy hues. This color palette probably aided in camouflage, the researchers posit.

Previous ancient color reconstruction efforts have been limited to the reds, browns and blacks of melanin pigment, but this was a unique case.  Calcium phosphate exceptionally preserved the snake’s skin layers, opening the door to reconstructing green and yellow coloration in the fossil record.

fossilized snake
Calcium phosphate preserved soft skin tissue in this fossilized snake. While previous color reconstruction research has focused on the reds and browns of melanin pigment cells, phosphorus may preserve additional types of pigment cell that degrade in other fossilization processes, researchers think. McNamara et al./Current Biology 2016

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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